Joining forces – how The Nexus promises to enhance CEA production

AGRI-TECH Innovation Centre CHAP has revealed conceptual plans for a project that tackles key challenges in controlled environment agriculture (CEA), to unlock its potential and help supply the UK with nutritious, sustainable, and affordable produce.

The solution is based on a business case for ‘The Nexus’, a proposed framework and network for partnership and collaborative innovation between the energy, water and food industries, focused on CEA food production across both greenhouse and vertical farming systems.

Now CHAP (Crop Health and Protection) seeks industry partners and interested collaborators to help make the outlined solution a reality.

Head of Marketing and Communications, Janine Adamson, said: “Through CHAP’s New Innovations Programme, the team brought together a collective of specialists and experienced industry voices to design a strategic business case that will combat the present gap in the market.

“During the process, stakeholders addressed the barriers for further expansion of controlled environment agriculture in the UK. A result of this process is a business case based on the government-endorsed Five Case Business Model – the Energy and Water Nexus for Controlled Food Production.”

Current barriers

Faye Tomson, Director of District Eating, joined CHAP in the programme. Reflecting on current industry barriers, she said: “According to a recent report, the total estimated waste heat from UK industry and electricity generation amounts to approximately 350,000 GWh/yr. There is great potential for this waste heat and waste CO2 to be utilised to supply protected horticulture production and support emissions reductions of as much as 70% against a fossil fuel gas business as usual scenario on a project by project basis.

“At District Eating we’ve been successful in mapping multiple sources of waste heat and CO2 across England, suitable for large-scale commercial greenhouses. With plenty of waste heat and CO2 across the country, the CEA sector has to think big and find ways to effectively cooperate.

“What we found to be key barriers for scaling up in the sector are stakeholders working together and sharing risks, such as infrastructure development which can cost millions of pounds. Going forward it is essential to find solutions around risk mitigation, cost sharing and building synergistic relationships.”

Furthermore, stakeholders from the New Innovations Programme identified the below key barriers:

  1. High barriers linked to set up costs
  2. Lack of adequate knowledge transfer across the sector
  3. Limited market share due to low interaction and information exchange
  4. Cross-platform operation is challenging and limits scalability
  5. Need for expiation of crop varieties adapted for CEA

The Solution – Energy and Water Nexus for Controlled Food Production

Through an interactive discussion series, stakeholders worked with the CHAP team to co-develop a solution that could overcome such challenges.

At the forefront of the project was CHAP’s Innovation Network Lead, Dr Harry Langford. Dr Langford said: “Globally, there is an ever-increasing demand for sustainably-grown fresh produce. As a result there is an immediate need for CEA systems to become a dependable, acting as a key contributor to solve food security challenges.

“It’s no secret that the food sector is under tremendous pressure to expand its production volume and adhere to strict criteria such as reducing the size of arable land, utilising clean energy, limiting food waste, and growing a diverse range of crops. CEA systems are an existing solution with untapped potential to help drive a positive change in the future of food production systems.

“The Energy-Food-Water Nexus provides a simple framework for a complex system and enables the interrogation of these three interlinked resources as a holistic unit. This will help to highlight the trade-offs between them and single out opportunities for more sustainable practices. It aims to build on existing projects in energy and water integration and develop a network of companies and academics as well as act as an incubator to support new, pre and early-stage companies in the UK landscape.

“To drive innovation forward, we envisage that test and demonstrator facilities will also be needed, in order to validate applied research and prove new technologies at scale. We’re excited to work with industry to make this a reality.”

Economic viability

By adhering to the Five Case Model framework, ‘The Energy and Water Nexus for Controlled Food Production’ was assessed against a series of options, out-benefitting the alternatives both in economic return and desirable qualitative advantages.

The team agreed that although this solution also comes with a higher risk, it can be mitigated by conducting a feasibility study to examine the practical aspects and market appetite ahead of launch.

Next steps

Coordinating the project was Dr Jemma Taylor, Research Associate for CHAP. She said: “To maximise CEA’s potential, novel innovation is needed. This would contribute to linking production systems, technologies and underpinning science together. At present, there is a clear market demand for an expanded CEA sector in the UK – one with lower operating costs, focused on improving cross-sector interaction and with a circular economy approach.

“A broad, yet significant, challenge is delivering transformative innovation that will enable the UK’s CEA sector to scale up beyond current initiatives and become a major contributor of diverse, nutritious, sustainable and affordable food within a context of net zero emissions.

“The first step towards realising the Energy and Water Nexus for Food solution was to review the UK technology landscape to identify existing and emerging technologies and assess their opportunities within CEA across both urban and rural settings, which has now been completed in collaboration with the UK Urban Agritech Collective (UKUAT).”

To be involved with the development of The Energy and Water Nexus for Controlled Food Production, e-mail enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk and for information about CHAP, visit www.chap-solutions.co.uk